Ed Burns right in his wheelhouse with his first TV series, ‘Public Morals’
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EAST HAMPTON, New York — As actor and filmmaker Ed Burns climbs the stairs of the Bay Kitchen Bar overlooking a quiet marina in the Hamptons on a beautiful sunny day, he is enjoying life in a world far from his gritty new police drama, set in New York’s Hell Kitchen in the 1960s.
The selection of the meeting place resonates with Burns, as “I worked here — it was a different restaurant then — back when I was in college.” These days the filmmaker keeps his Boston Whaler fishing boat in the aforementioned marina.
On the stairs he walks a bit gingerly on an Ace bandage-wrapped foot, explaining, “I sprained my ankle playing tennis yesterday.” On-court injuries aside, the New York native is happy to talk about his latest project, the TV series “Public Morals,” debuting at 9 p.m. Tuesday on TNT.
“It’s like a strange brew of all of my obsessions. [That includes] the Irish-American family, old New York, Hell’s Kitchen, Irish gangsters, the criminal element and old Times Square,” says Burns, adding, “I remember being a kid and going into Manhattan and you’d see all the hookers and decadence of 42nd Street at that time. There was a grittiness there that was fascinating, and is still fascinating to me as a storyteller and filmmaker.”
As for setting “Public Morals,” his 10-part series about the New York Police Department’s vice squad responsible for rooting out prostitution, gambling and other illegal activities in the early 1960s, Burns mentions that his inspiration came from “a lot of movies I saw as a kid — the kind of noir movies that made me want to make movies.
“For ‘Public Morals,’ I looked at events and things that happened a little bit before the era we focus on in the show, and perhaps a bit later, to set the mood.
“For example, in the opening scene of the first episode where the young kid O’Bannon [played by Austin Stowell] beats up Timothy Hutton [who portrays his estranged father], the pool hall is modeled after the pool hall in ‘The Hustler,’ which was a famous pool hall in Times Square, now long since gone. But we found a space out in Brooklyn where we thought, ‘All right, this looks enough like it.’ ”
Because Burns’ experience has really never included television work, he approached “Public Morals” as if “we just were going to make a 10-hour movie, and not 10 one-hour TV episodes. I’ve never done a TV show before. My [director of photography] doesn’t do TV. My costume designer Kat Thomas, my production designer — we all came up together in the indie film world. So we decided we didn’t want it to look or feel like a TV show. We certainly didn’t want to shoot it in that style.”
Burns’ reputation in the world of intelligent independent filmmaking was strong enough to attract the kind of acting talent you more often see working on the big screen. Frequent Goodman Theatre actor Brian Dennehy was cast as the head of the Irish mob. Michael Rapaport plays Burns’ police partner. Oscar winner Hutton is part of the mix, and the same goes for Kevin Corrigan and Neal McDonough.
As Burns worked on launching “Public Morals,” the elements in it had been brewing in his creative still for many, many years.
“I kept asking myself, where is the audience for something like this? They’re not going to the theaters because Hollywood doesn’t really make movies like this anymore. … No superhero to be found!
“I realized people are staying at home and thanks to things like HBO, Showtime, TNT, FX and the rest of cable, etc., they are home watching TV and are dying to see these kinds of stories. ‘The Sopranos’ proved that, of course, as did ‘The Wire.’ ”
Burns goes to reveal that “years ago I wrote a script for Steven Spielberg after I did ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Steven met my dad and my uncle on the set of that film — both retired cops, full of lots of great stories.
“That script never got made, and this project is different in many respects, but it’s my baby. I finally now get to tell the old New York epic cop story, about a big Irish-Catholic family from Hell’s Kitchen.
“In my films, I don’t write about crime and cops too often, but I write about family always. Look, ‘The Godfather,’ probably my favorite film, as it is for many people, is a gangster story — yeah. But it’s a family saga — a family dressed up in gangster clothes. That’s what ‘Public Morals’ needs to be. … In episode six, one of my favorite scenes in the whole series is all about a big family dinner, pulling from the kinds of conversations I remember around the dinner table in our home growing up.
“That scene is filled with as much action and drama as the ones with all the killing and other madness.”